The concept of triangular trade involving furs acquired from the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast was born in 1778 when the British naval expedition led by James Cook stopped at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and traded for sea otter skins with the Nuu-chah-nulth led by Maquinna. When the expedition reached China, they found that the sea otter furs which they had obtained for a dollar’s worth of trinkets sold to the Chinese mandarins for a hundred dollars. A decade later, Captain Robert Gray sailed the Columbia Rediviva out of Boston, traded for furs along the Northwest Coast, then traded the furs in China for tea, and returned home. This profitable trip inspired other sea captains, and soon this type of fur trade was flourishing.
Sir Alexander MacKenzie, a partner in the Canadian North West Company and the first European to cross North America by land, saw great potential in the triangular trade with China and attempted to sell the idea to the British government. MacKenzie also discussed this idea with John Jacob Astor, an American interested in the fur trade. By 1810, John Jacob Astor had come up with a massive plan for triangular trade involving the Northwest Coast, China, and the European and American markets. To acquire furs, Astor proposed a chain of trading posts from the upper Missouri to the Columbia River where the furs could be loaded onto ships. In addition, by having his ships provision the Russian trading posts in Alaska, he could obtain additional furs from them. By transporting the furs—sea otter, lynx, bear, and beaver—across the Pacific, Astor’s captains could take advantage of the market demand for them in China and sell them at tremendous profit. Then, in China, the ships would fill their holds with porcelain, silk, tea, and other Chinese goods which would reap astronomical profits from American and European consumers who were demanding Chinese goods and willing to pay high prices for them. While Astor didn’t originate the idea of triangular trade, his plan was larger, more global, and more profitable than anyone had dreamed.
In 1811, the American ship Tonquin stopped in Hawaii on its way to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River for John Jacob Astor. The Tonquin’s captain was U.S. naval hero Johathan Thorn and its passengers included four Scottish fur traders—Alexander McKay (considered to be a friend of the Indians, he had crossed the North American continent on foot in 1793 with Alexander MacKenzie), Duncan McDougal, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart—who were Astor’s working partners in his new enterprise.
Hawaii at this time was an independent sovereign kingdom ruled by King Kamekameha. The Tonquin put in at Tohehigh Bay for the purpose of acquiring Hawaiian pigs and Native Hawaiians. The fur traders soon found, however, that there was a Royal Hawaiian decree that banned local villagers from selling their pigs to passing ships.
The governor of the Big Island was a Scotsman named John Young who had been in Hawaii for about twenty years. Young informed the fur traders that the King held a monopoly on the sale of pigs and that they would need to sail to Waikiki and to negotiate directly with the King. At Waikiki, King Kamekameha came out to the Tonquin in a huge double canoe paddled by sixteen chiefs. He wore a mixture of Western and traditional dress which included a blue coat with a velvet collar, a beaver top hot, and a long sword which had been given to him by his “brother,” King George III of England. While Captain Thorn was unimpressed by this display, the Scottish partners, accustomed to dealing with different cultures, understood the need for showing power and refinement.
The Scottish partners, dressed formally in their kilts, visited King Kamekameha, calling themselves “the Great Eris of the Northwest.” The word “eris” is the Hawaiian word for king. They explained to him, that once their trading post was established there would be very profitable trade with his kingdom. As a result of their negotiations, dozens of canoes brought fruit, vegetables, and a hundred pigs to the Tonquin.
The Scottish partners also wanted to hire as many as 40 Hawaiians to work at what they called their “North West Emporium.” Unlike Americans and Europeans of this time period, the Hawaiians knew how to swim and they could hold their breath for up to four minutes while diving underwater. In addition, they had extraordinary skill at handling canoes. King Kamekameha urged his subjects to travel to foreign lands, to learn new skills, and to bring these skills back to Hawaii. On the other hand, Captain Thorn did not want to let any Hawaiians on board. In the end, the partners reached a compromise in which 24 Hawaiians would come on board—12 were to serve as sailors and 12 were to work for the new Emporium at the Columbia River.
At the mouth of the Columbia River, the Tonquin encountered the Columbia Bar, some of the most treacherous waters in the world. Captain Thorn sent out the pinnace (a small boat used to ferry passengers and supplies back and forth to the shore) with a crew of five, including two of the Hawaiians, to measure the depth of the water. The crew soon found the channel and the Tonquin began to make its way across the bar. While the crew of the pinnacle expected the Tonquin to pause or throw them a rope as it passed by, this did not happen. The tide shifted and soon the outward flow of the Columbia River pushed against the incoming waves, making waves with steep, high peaks. The pinnace was knocked over.
The Hawaiians, as expert swimmers and canoeists, quickly flipped the boat upright, then began the rocking motion which made the water inside the boat slosh over the gunwales. While they had undoubtedly done this procedure on canoes in Hawaii, there was a difference in water temperature: in Hawaii the water is 80 degrees Fahrenheit while at the mouth of the Columbia it is 45 degrees. At this temperature the body loses heat quickly. In spite of this, the Hawaiians managed to get enough water out of the boat so that they could climb in and bail. Drifting out to sea, they rescued one of the other crew members. They were now wet and cold and it was dark. By midnight, one of the Hawaiians died. The remaining two actually made it to shore and lived.
Now on the shore of North America, the 23 remaining Hawaiians conducted an elaborate burial ceremony for the Hawaiian who had died. They placed sea biscuit and pork under his arms and tobacco under his genitals for his journey into the next world.
This group of Hawaiians marked the beginning of Hawaiian involvement in the North American fur trade. For the next 40 years, native Hawaiians—usually called Kanakas—played an important role in the fur trade in Oregon and Washington.